Tim Hughes finds plenty to admire in a witty and stylish new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Emma

It’s hard to avoid Jane Austen at the moment.

With the 200th anniversary of the great author’s death just weeks away, we can’t get enough of the partly Oxford-educated writer, and her picturesque vignettes of genteel Georgian society – replete with impeccable manners, social snobbery, laced-up inhibition and convoluted courtship rituals.

Well-trodden and familiar, one might wonder what there is left to say or do to cast new light on her work. Surely it has already all been done?

A new adaptation of Emma by Tim Luscombe for The Production Exchange on show at the Oxford Playhouse, would humbly beg to differ. This fresh and witty production is lovingly loyal to the spirit of Austen, yet, without scaring the horses, feels polished and zesty.

The story, Austen’s fourth and last to be published before her death (Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Lady Susan were posthumous), tells the tale of the feisty Emma Woodhouse – a likeable but scheming young woman who just can’t stay out of others affairs (in all senses). She is outspoken, witty, clever and self-assured. A product of her time, she spends her days picnicking, socialising, taking gentle exercise and involving herself in minor deceits.

She is bored, of course. If she were alive today she would be a captain of industry or, as Luscombe points out, would have gone to Oxford, read PPE and become the next prime minister.

This elegantly understated production is attractive in its sparse minimalism – a simple painted backdrop and clever split-level stage doubling for opulent interiors, gardens and the Surrey hills, magnifying the sense of suburban claustrophobia.

Costume is suitably luscious with the usual high-waisted dresses, bonnets, breeches and boots. But what gives this production its slick style is the paired down dialogue which exposes the keenly observed foibles of its characters and the crisp delivery of Austen’s witty wordplay – with standout performances by the sparkling Bethan Nash as the eponymous heroine.

Look beyond the Regency frills and we have a rapier-tipped parody of the vanity of the idle rich, the pretensions of suburbia and the charade of courtship. It’s engaging, charming and very funny.


Emma continues at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday.